Scientists and global commentators watched African countries closely in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, predicting an impending disaster: the virus was projected to overwhelm already weak health systems. These expectations were informed by imaginaries of Africa as an inevitable site of epidemic disaster. This paper draws on accounts from Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of the Congo to contrast global catastrophe framings with everyday imaginations and experiences of crisis and crisis management. Utilising ethnographic research, the paper initially explores how COVID-19 was understood in relation to previous epidemics, from HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) to Ebola, as well as political conflict. It then considers how global crisis narratives both inform and are in tension with everyday collective and personal experiences. The paper brings these empirical reflections into a conversation with theoretical debates on the discursive construction of crisis and its effects, and argues that these tensions matter because crisis framings have consequences.